Vasco da Gama set off in 1497 searching for a route, by sea, to the East. For thousands of years of products from China, India and other Eastern countries came to Europe by road – a long, challenging, and dangerous trek, by foot, by camel and by donkey. Fraught with hardship, many caravans never reached their destinations. On route they were attacked and robbed, sometimes more than once, and every town or country they passed through demanded taxes and tolls.
A route around Africa would benefit a country first to discover it and Vasco da Gama was the man. His first voyage around the Cape of Good Hope was the longest ever to be attempted in the world – and Portugal was the first. Many attempts had been made, but none before da Gama had been successful and many ships and many men never returned. On the 20th May 1498 da Gama reached Kozhikode (Calicut), and trading began, and spices like pepper and cinnamon made up the first cargos, but there were many other products available, some strange and unknown to Europeans. He returned home with only 54 of his 174 crew he started with, most dying of scurvy, including his brother, Paola.
Initially, Vasco was welcomed by Calicutians, but after presenting them with cheap baubles as gifts, insulting their leaders who became very unhappy and with opposition from the Moslems who had been trading in the area for centuries, da Game left without any signed trade agreements. On his second trip, da Gama was far more aggressive and attacked Moslem shipping and forced the Calicut leaders to sign the trade agreements which caused lousy blood throughout India.
Before da Gama made his epic voyage to India, the route had been opened by Bartholomeo Diaz, also Portuguese, who was the first to round the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of Africa nine years before da Gama. His voyage was cut short by his crew as they feared the Khoisan inhabitants of these areas, and just short of mutiny, they agreed to sail for another three days. They reached what is now known as the Fish River in the Eastern Cape, and they planted across as a marker for future sailors.
Portugal ruled the trade route for another 30 years or so, but it was not until one hundred years later that England, France, Holland and Denmark became a force to be reckoned with. About five years later da Gama sailed the route again, and in 1524 he was made Viceroy, Governor of India. In 2016 one of da Gama’s ships that had foundered off the coast of Oman was discovered and yielded many artefacts.